Article by Delann Fraschetti Finch, Esq.
Defining Gross Negligence
Under Pennsylvania, the plaintiff has the burden to prove that a defendant was grossly negligent by showing that the defendant’s conduct significantly departed from how a reasonably careful person would act under the circumstances. See, 13.50 [FNa1] (Civ) Gross Negligence, Pa. SSJI (Civ), §13.50 (2020). A defendant can be grossly negligent by an action or omission. Id.
Courts in Pennsylvania are not in uniform agreement as to the definition of the term. Bloom v. Dubois Reg’l Med. Ctr., 409 Pa. Super. 83, 97, 597 A.2d 671, 679 (1991). However, it is defined that gross negligence does not encompass wanton or reckless behavior. Bloom, 597 A.2d 671, 679. In Bloom, the court held that gross negligence was a form of negligence where the behavior was “substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.” Id. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has held that “[n]egligence consists of inattention or inadvertence, whereas wantonness exists where the danger to the plaintiff, though realized, is so recklessly disregarded that, even though there be no actual intent, there is at least a willingness to inflict injury, a conscious indifference to the perpetration of the wrong. Kasanovich v. George, 348 Pa. 199, 203, 34 A.2d 523, 525 (1943); see also Krivijanski v. Union Railroad Co., 357 Pa.Super. 196, 515 A.2d 933 (1986).
Defining Punitive Damages
In a plaintiff’s Complaint, punitive damages can be insinuated when the plaintiff alleges that a defendant’s actions were “careless,” “indifferent,” “wanton,” and “willful.”
If a plaintiff wants to demand punitive damages, a plaintiff must show that a defendant was grossly negligent. However, a showing of “gross negligence” alone is insufficient to support an award of punitive damages. See 40 P.S. §1303.505(a); see also, Zazzera v. Roche,54 D. & C. 4th 225, 231 (Lacka. Co. 2001). Punitive damages are primarily awarded in extreme cases, usually when a defendant directly injured the plaintiff.
Punitive damages cannot be awarded for misconduct that constitutes ordinary negligence such as inadvertence, mistake, and errors of judgment. See, McDaniel v. Merck, Sharp & Dohme, 367 Pa. Super. 600, 533 A.2d 436 (1987). Punitive damages have procedural and substantive constitutional limitations. See, State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (2003). The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the imposition of grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments on a tortfeasor. See, State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 538 U.S. 408 (2003).
Under the MCARE Act, 40 P.S. §1303.505, “punitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is the result of the healthcare provider’s willful and wanton conduct, or reckless indifference to the rights of others.” See 40 P.S. §1303.505.
“Negligence consists of inattention or inadvertence, whereas wantonness exists where the danger to the plaintiff, though realized, is so recklessly disregarded that, even though there be no actual intent, there is at least a willingness to inflict injury, a conscious indifference to the perpetration of the wrong.” Bloom v. Dubois Regional Medical Center, 409 Pa. Super. 83 (1991) (quoting Kasanovich v. George, 348 Pa. 199, 203, 34 A.2d 523, 525 (1943)); see also, Krivijanski v. Union Railroad Co., 357 Pa. Super. 196, 515 A.2d 933 (1986).